Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fat Chance!

So, as we warned New Yorkers when the silly idea of calorie posting was first proposed, there was no evidence that the concept would have the slightest effect on the behavior of fast food customers-and we have been proven correct. As the NY Times reports today, the whole experiment has been a colossal waste of time and money: "A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains...It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result. But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008."

As we pointed out over two years ago, there was no scientific research indicating that calorie posting would have any impact on food choices-and that kind of data is generally used before any government actions are taken that would place unfair burdens on businesses-at least when the FDA is involved, The NYC DOH, however, didn't feel that it needed to be guided by anything evidence-based-and went ahead, prompted by the ideological zeal of Mother Tom Frieden and the advocates at Center for Science in the Public Interest.

And they found out that it is always good to examine an issue before you place mandates on local businesses that are already struggling-along with their customers. we might add-in the down economy: "I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview."

But, you have to give the NYC Department of Health some credit for honesty. When we first commented on the fact that the agency would do its own study of the cockamamie calorie posting rule, we worried that it was a mistake to let the health bureaucrats mark their own exam-but we worried for nothing-and the Times found anecdotally what the study demonstrated: "On Monday, customers at the McDonald’s on 125th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue provided anecdotal support for the findings. William Mitchell, from Rosedale, Queens, who was in Harlem for a job interview, ordered two cheeseburgers, about 600 calories total, for $2. When asked if he had checked the calories, he said: “It’s just cheap, so I buy it. I’m looking for the cheapest meal I can.”

All of this underscores just how dangerous ideologically driven health advocacy can be if it is allowed to proceed without any real legislative review-something that the city council enabled by letting DOH put the calorie posting into effect through regulation rather than with the implementation of a local law. The DOH hearings were a joke-and now that joke is on the department, and all of us who have been subjected to an experiment that wasn't evidence based,

This should be, but won't if Mike Bloomberg is re-elected-a cautionary tale. Trying to control the behavior of the folks through complicated and often expensive regulations is not the way to go. And if you're trying to help poorer New Yorkers, the most important thing that you can do is to help make their economic environment more productive so that their daily struggles aren't so difficult. People often eat to feel better-and do so in a less healthy manner when their circumstances are more challenging-something that the elitists and the billionaires can never quite grasp.

So the fast food restaurants have been put through hoops because of all this and, as we said at the time, it may be legal, but it still doesn't make any sense. The reactions of the customers should be educational for the so-called experts: "Tameika Coates, 28, who works in the gift shop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ordered a Big Mac, 540 calories, with a large fries, 500 calories, and a large Sprite, 310 calories. “I don’t really care too much,” Ms. Coates said. “I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already,” she added with a laugh. April Matos, a 24-year-old family specialist, bought her 3-year-old son, Amari, a Happy Meal with chicken McNuggets, along with a Snack Wrap for herself. She said with a shrug that she had no interest in counting calories. “Life is short,” she said, adding that she used to be a light eater. “I started eating everything now I’m pregnant.”

But we appear to be wrong-and the experts remain impervious to the evidence: "Nutrition and public health experts said the findings showed how hard it was to change behavior, but they said it was not a reason to abandon calorie posting." Failure, it seems, is no reason to stop the meddling-not when you're doing such good work.